September 11, remembered

Melissa DeLaney Contributor
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“Mom, sorry it’s so early, but you have to turn on your TV. This is beyond words.”

Sometime after 8:45 a.m. Eastern time on the morning of September 11th, 2001, I called my parents in Arizona, where it was three hours earlier. Together we watched the news reports about a jet that had flown into one of the World Trade Center’s towers

It seemed unreal, a horrible accident. The three of us — separated by 2,000 miles — sat silent and awestruck on the phone.

“Melissa, did you see that? Another plane hit the tower, they just showed it!” my mother said.

I was 22 years old and three months out of college — my journalism degree was fresh but my political acumen was being sharpened at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where I worked in the communications department

It was an off-year, but we were a young team and our boss incessantly drilled us on preparedness, research, opportunities, rapid response and campaign-related offensive and defensive strategies, among many other lessons. We worked long hours and lots of weekends — but I loved it.

What I remember the most about that day was how strikingly beautiful it was that morning. I usually left my house in Alexandria by 6 a.m. and drove up I-395 toward Washington, my mind racing with what was on tap for that day.

The highway crests right by the Pentagon, just as the Washington skyline comes into view. I remember that day the view at that spot took my breath away. The sun was rising and the sky was pink. The entire city was bathed in the warm light. It was gorgeous. The scene sent a tiny shiver down my spine as I crossed the Potomac into the city and thought to myself, “I am so lucky to live here and see sights like this every day.”

As soon as the second plane hit, we knew these strange events were no accident. My desk at the time was right next to the executive director’s office. His windows faced southwest, and it was from his office that we watched the thick black smoke rise up from that direction. The Pentagon.

There were reports of a fire on the National Mall. A bomb at the State Department. Nobody knew what to believe — all of it would have seemed implausible if the morning’s events hadn’t been so surreal.

We evacuated. I went with a colleague to his friend’s family’s house in nearby McLean, Virginia. I had never met that family before — and haven’t seen them since — but I remember thinking it was comforting being with parents, anyone’s parents.

We spent the day watching the news, frozen in the living room and unable to tear ourselves away. One tower fell. Then the other. Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.

As the afternoon drifted into the evening, we remained glued to the news. I remember trying to fall asleep, unsettled not just by the day’s events but by the eerie quiet — not one plane in the sky and I was only a couple of miles from Reagan National — interrupted periodically by the roar of military aircraft patrolling the area. I jumped out of my skin each time.

I honestly can’t recall much about the next couple of days. They were a blur. I know I showed up at work the next day. I know I considered moving back home. It seemed safer.

But President Bush’s leadership in the days after the attacks changed me, made me the person I am today. His speech on the floor of Congress on September 21 was electrifying, solemn, healing and rallying. He brought the nation together with his words, at a time when we’ve never needed it more. I stayed in Washington and was never prouder than when I served as an appointee in his administration.

There’s little doubt that September 11, 2001 affected all Americans, many in life-changing ways. A brave many were inspired to enlist in our armed services. Perhaps others were shown the path of civil or social services. And some were steered, perhaps even unknowingly, by their personal experiences surrounding the events of that day.

I was forever changed by what my eyes saw and my heart felt on 9/11, and it unquestionably influenced the course of my life. More than anything, I knew I had to be involved in one way or another in the institution that makes the United States the best country in the world — the process of democracy.

Ten years later, those lessons should not be forgotten. It’s not what makes us different — it’s about embracing our differences. It’s about being Americans. About democracy. About supporting our troops and those who risk their lives every day to protect our beloved freedom.

The tenth anniversary of the attacks will be painful and solemn. I know I’m lucky and that my story pales in comparison to what those in New York City endured that day — or to what those who lost loved ones that day are still enduring.

But our stories — wherever we were that day — will forever serve as powerful reminders that freedom is far from free but worth the fight. This is the lesson I will instill in my 2-year-old daughter. One day, I will tell her my story and encourage her to listen and learn from the stories of others. In this way, not only will we never forget, but future generations won’t either.

This week, it’s my hope that these stories will bring us together again, to reflect, to remember and to honor those we lost, those who fight and their families’ sacrifices.

Melissa DeLaney is the communications director at the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. She spent eight years working on Capitol Hill and at the U.S. Department of Transportation, where she served as a spokeswoman for former Secretary Mary Peters.